According to Bloomberg, there are currently 10 million Russian Telegram chat app users. According to Russian news agency, Tass, because the app did not provide encryption keys to intelligence authorities in Russia, Moscow’s Tagansky court ruled that the app should be blocked.
By providing encryption keys to Russian intelligence authorities, the privacy functionality that’s built into Telegram’s platform would effectively be rendered useless. The company refused to provide these keys as requested by the Federal Security Service (FSS), protecting their users’ personal communications. As a result, it is likely that steps will be taken to limit access to Telegram in Russia.
Although this move may have a temporary negative impact on Telegram and its ICO, it is unlikely to have a lasting effect. As with most government attempts at controlling technology, people who wish to work around it will always find a way. If the app is blocked using conventional methods, Russian users may very easily use inexpensive VPN services to get around it. Using such services may in fact have an effect that is opposite to the result that is desired by Russian authorities. With more regulations in place that are designed to block Telegram and similar services, more Russian users will likely sign up for VPN services, which can be used not just to mask their Telegram activity, but to mask all of their internet usage.
Such activity is already popular in other authoritarian countries. For example, China blocked Dropbox in 2010. People in China responded by using VPN services to gain access. Additionally, Dropbox enabled SSL access in 2014, which not only gave people another workaround to combat government regulations. As a result, not only did Dropbox users maintain the ability to use the service, but the government lost some of its ability to spy on that usage.
According to Tass, the move by Moscow courts was in response to demands set forth by Russia’s telecommunications watchdog. The FSS wanted the ability to decrypt user messages. Due to the company’s noncompliance, the judge ruled that the ban must be implemented instantly.
According to Russian authorities, as reported by Tass, members of international terrorist organizations in Russia actively use Telegram messenger. This usage was reported to include a suicide bomber who plotted an attack in St. Petersburg in April 2017. Russian security agents requested information to decode messages for six phone numbers at the time, but did not receive a response from Telegram. As a result, Moscow courts fined the company $13,000 USD. Telegram responded by filing a lawsuit with the Russian Supreme Court, which was denied.
The Moscow response to Telegram usage may foreshadow Washington’s response to the recent Facebook testimony by Mark Zuckerberg. The difference however, is that Zuckerberg appears to be cooperative with American regulators, where Telegram appears to be uncooperative with Russian regulators. In the US, Apple denied an FBI request for security keys in 2016, under similar circumstances to the case involving Telegram in Russia. The response to Apple by the US government has not been nearly as restrictive as Russia’s response to Telegram. This is good news for Americans, and the hope would be to continue moving in such a direction.